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$50 million NSF grant to advance cyberinfrastructure for big data in life sciences

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $50 million to a multi-institution collaborative headquartered at the University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute to create a national cyberinfrastructure for the biological sciences.

The renewal grant for the iPlant Collaborative, with partner sites at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas, Austin, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York, and University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), will allow scientists around the world to use proven computational tools to analyze very large datasets to efficiently address questions of global importance, advancing the understanding of biology beyond which any individual research group is capable.

The original five-year $50 million project, initiated in 2008, was the largest grant ever awarded by the NSF in the biological sciences, and three times larger than any NSF grant received by an institute in the state of Arizona at the time. Today, even in a precarious time for national funding agencies, the NSF renewed the iPlant award for another five years, increasing the total investment in the project to $100 million.

"Today's announcement is proof that our investment in higher education is paying off. Our public universities have adopted aggressive goals to increase externally-funded research and it is evident they are succeeding." Arizona Gov. Janice K. Brewer said. "For Arizona's economy to remain vibrant in the future, we need to grow the industries, like the biosciences, that benefit from the high quality research that takes place in our universities. We are tremendously proud that our state, and the University of Arizona, was chosen to continue this leading-edge research project."

This type of large, collaborative project is part of the return on investment that the UA promised the state of Arizona when the BIO5 Institute was launched in 2001. BIO5 was created with financial support generated by the Technology and Research Initiative Fund, a special investment in higher education made possible by the passage of Proposition 301 by Arizona voters in November 2000, and a generous donation by UA alumnus Thomas W. Keating. BIO5 provides the administrative infrastructure for iPlant, bringing together life science researchers and computer scientists to examine complex biological questions.

"This remarkable renewal grant recognizes the great work being done every day by UA researchers and their collaborators and specifically, the solid reputation and success of the iPlant Collaborative," said UA President Ann Weaver Hart. "The UA has emerged as a leader in the biosciences and computational science research and education, and we appreciate the National Science Foundation's acknowledgement of iPlant's impact. Solving the grand challenges that all of us face: feeding the world, improving the health of people and the planet, and the conservation and use of our natural resources requires projects like iPlant and worldwide collaborations among scientists."

Over the past five years, iPlant's team of 40-plus employees at the UAworking with additional personnel at TACC, CSHL and UNCWhas solicited the national and international plant research community for the computational and data-based challenges they face in research. Based on this community input, the team created a set of technologies for connecting scientists both to needed computational resources and to collaborators with expertise to accelerate the pace of their research. The iPlant tools and services are being adopted by a broad range of life science researchers in need of high performance computing for big data analysis and management. These tools and services also are being used in innovative approaches to education, outreach and the study of social networks.

"iPlant has created both a physical center at the UA's BIO5 Institute and a virtual computing space where researchers can communicate and work together as they share, analyze and manipulate data, all while seeking answers to biology's greatest unsolved problems," said Stephen Goff, iPlant's principal investigator and project director based at the UA. "iPlant's mission is to merge ever-evolving computational technology and shared data capabilities with collaborative human brainpower, essentially changing the way we approach life science research. The iPlant cyberinfrastructure is designed to utilize cutting-edge software applications and storage capabilities that are becoming imperative for life scientists to access, analyze and create knowledge from the large datasets being generated by new technologies."

Advances in biological research technology have enabled scientists to amass unlimited and unprecedented amounts of data. In the past, these scientists were able to meet computational challenges in their labs using workstations and university computer clusters. Now, they are finding that these resources are unable keep up at the same rate as data is acquired. According to Nirav Merchant, iPlant's cyberinfrastructure faculty advisor at the UA, "We've always had big data, but now we have the usable tools and technology to act on it."

UA participants in the iPlant Collaborative include the BIO5 Institute; the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Plant Sciences; the College of Science's Departments of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; the School of Information: Science, Technology, and Arts; the College of Engineering's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; the Arizona Research Laboratories' Biotechnology Computing Facility; and University Information Technology Services.

Fernando Martinez, director of the UA BIO5 Institute said, "In the model of BIO5 and the University of Arizona in general, iPlant brings together many different types of scientists, teachers, and students who otherwise might not communicate with one another, and in doing so, creates the kind of multidisciplinary environment that is necessary to crack the toughest problems in modern biology."


Contact: Daniel Stolte
University of Arizona

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